Excess Deaths Have Been Running Much Lower Than Official COVID-19 Deaths in Europe

Many commentators, not to mention Government spokesmen, are still relying on ‘COVID-19 deaths per million people’ as a measure of the disease’s lethality. However, we know that excess mortality – the number of deaths in excess of what you’d expect based on previous years – provides a more accurate gauge of the pandemic’s death toll.

Unlike ‘COVID-19 deaths per million people’, this measure does not vary with factors like testing infrastructure or the criteria for assigning cause of death. (Though the best measure to use is age-adjusted excess mortality.)

In the U.K. and some other countries, excess deaths ran much higher than official COVID-19 deaths in the first wave, due to a lack of testing. However, since the start of this year, they’ve have been running much lower than official COVID-19 deaths in Western Europe.

As I noted in a previous post, Ariel Kalinsky and Dmitry Kobak have collected all the available data on excess mortality in one place. (Note: they use a linear trend over the last five years as the baseline, rather than a simple average, which yields more accurate estimates of excess deaths.)

The latest version of their study includes a chart showing excess deaths and official COVID-19 deaths over time in sixteen different countries:

In Peru, Mexico and South Africa, excess deaths have been running substantially higher than official COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic. By contrast, in all but four of the European countries, excess deaths closely matched official COVID-19 deaths up the end of 2020.

However, since the beginning of 2021, excess deaths have been running lower – often much lower – than official COVID-19 deaths in every European country. In Austria, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and the U.K., excess deaths have been negative (i.e., below the baseline) for multiple consecutive weeks. 

Some of these disparities could be due to reporting delays for all-cause deaths. However, the authors “excluded the most recent data points whenever there was an indication that the data were substantially incomplete”, so such delays are unlikely to be a big contributor. And in any case, the largest disparities between excess and official deaths are not seen in the most recent weeks. 

Overall, Kalinsky and Kobak’s findings indicate that excess deaths has become untethered from official COVID-19 deaths in Europe, and the latter measure is now substantially overstating the pandemic’s death toll. 

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